Reeling in the truth
23 March 2014
Over 40 years since Jean McConville disappeared, a man has been charged. Will justice finally be done
The look of terror on his mother’s face has remained etched on his memory for over 40 years. Michael McConville, then aged 11, vividly remembers the night the IRA took his mother. The knock on the door of their home in the Divis flats in west Belfast came at about 6.30pm on December 7, 1972.
“They just barged in when my sister opened the door. Some of them wore masks, others didn’t. They were shouting and screaming,” he said. “I held on to my mother. I think I attached myself to her leg. I was crying, refusing to let go. My mother was in a terrible state. The IRA had taken her the night before and beaten her up. She was terrified. She was crying. I think she probably knew what was going to happen.”
The intruders were local members of the IRA, both men and women. “They tried to calm us down because we were all screaming. My brother Arthur, who was a teenager, said he wanted to go with her. They said OK, and the two of them left, but when Arthur walked down the stairwell of the flats, they put a gun to his head and told him to go home. That was the last we ever saw of her,” McConville recalled.
“I think about it every day. It haunts me. I think she knew what they were going to do. I can still see the terror in her eyes. That look has never left me.”
Jean McConville was 37 and the mother of 10 children. She had been widowed the previous January when her husband Arthur died from cancer. In the months before she was abducted, she had had a series of nervous breakdowns, attempted to take her own life and suffered depression as she tried to cope with her loss and raise 10 children alone.
She is believed to have been interrogated for up to six days until an IRA gunman murdered her with a single shot to the back of the head. Her body was then taken to Shilling Hill beach on the Carlingford peninsula in Co Louth, where she was buried.
The IRA didn’t claim responsibility for the killing. Instead she became one of the Disappeared — paramilitary victims whose bodies were buried in remote bogs south of the border. The McConville family’s ordeal was just beginning.
The IRA returned a week later to take Michael, who had recognised at least three members of the gang: a woman and two men from the local area. The boy was hooded, strapped to a chair and beaten with hurleys in a disused house.
“They held me for three hours. They said that if I said anything about the IRA, they would kill me. They placed a hood over my head, but I could see them through it. They hit me. They fired a cap gun to frighten me and put a knife in my mouth,” he said. “These people were supposed to be protecting our community and this is what they were doing to an 11-year-old boy. I still see them around today. I still won’t make a statement to the police in case they get to my family. The IRA haven’t gone away; people just think they have.”
Having silenced the McConville children, the IRA denigrated their mother’s memory by telling journalists she had abandoned them to pursue a relationship with a loyalist paramilitary and was living in Britain. “We knew this was a lie. We all knew our mother was dead. She would never have left us,” said Michael.
The McConville siblings looked after themselves for a week or two until the social services heard of their plight and got involved, placing the children in care homes. Their mother’s remains were not found until August 2003.
Now, almost 42 years later, the circumstances surrounding the abduction and murder have again come back to haunt the IRA and Sinn Fein. The PSNI yesterday charged Ivor Bell, a 77-year-old republican and former associate of Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, in connection with the killing. More charges are expected to follow.
So could further revelations about the events around McConville’s murder implicate Adams, said to have been the leader of the Belfast IRA unit responsible for the “disappearance”?
THE death of Jean McConville was a singular event in the history of the Troubles, according to Anne Morgan, whose 33-year old brother Seamus Ruddy is among the Disappeared.
“We recognise that what happened to her was like no other. The IRA ruined that family. Those children still have the scars. I personally think it’s much sadder than my own case,” said Morgan, whose brother was murdered in France in May 1985 after he left the political wing of the Irish National Liberation Army. Ruddy’s body has never been located.
“She wasn’t just a mother; she was a widow, a vulnerable woman. She was rearing 10 children in Divis flats on her own. She was born a Protestant but converted to Catholicism to marry someone she loved. There are all those elements which make her story a poignant one,” said Morgan.
The republican movement denied knowing anything of the missing woman until 1999, when it finally admitted killing her and operating a policy of disappearing people.
The IRA identified the location of her body after it began co-operating with a special body set up by the Irish and British governments, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains. Those who provided information about the missing bodies were granted immunity under the Good Friday agreement.
The IRA initially identified the burial location as Templetown beach in Co Louth. It was extensively excavated, but no trace of her remains were found.
Michael Finnegan, a retired detective chief superintendent who oversaw the search, believes the IRA did its best but simply got the location wrong. “The commission was in close contact with the IRA,” he said. “We spoke to a lot of the locals but they couldn’t understand why anyone would bury a body there, because it was overlooked by a house.
“The Provos insisted it was there, but nothing was found. They came back with more information to say there was a stream running down by the burial site. Lo and behold, when the body was eventually found at Shilling Beach, which is nearby, it was close to a stream. The information obviously came from someone who was there when she was buried, but got the location wrong.”
If the victim had been found at the spot identified by the IRA, the gardai and the PSNI could not have pursued the current prosecution due to the immunity deal, according to Finnegan.
The IRA has never offered any explanation as to why it murdered Jean McConville, but possible motives began to emerge in 2010 alongside details of taped interviews with IRA members recorded as part of an oral history project organised by Boston College in America.
The interviews, which involved 26 former IRA members, were carried out between 2001 and 2006 by Anthony McIntyre, himself a former IRA member, and Ed Moloney, a journalist and author. Among those who gave interviews was Dolours Price, a former IRA bomber, and Brendan Hughes, an erstwhile IRA hunger striker and one-time confidant of Adams.
The two researchers undertook to keep the recordings secret until the participants had passed away. When Hughes died in 2008, Moloney published a transcript of the dead republican’s interview in a book, Voices from the Grave. It implicated Adams in the disappearance of McConville.
Hughes said the IRA killed McConville because she had worked as an informer, although a later investigation by Nuala O’Loan, the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, found no evidence of this and dismissed the claim.
Adams denied involvement, but then Price claimed she too had been associated with the McConville “disappearance” and insisted that the Sinn Fein leader had ordered the woman’s murder. The statement prompted the PSNI to initiate legal proceedings to obtain the Boston College tapes, which ultimately proved successful.
Richard O’Rawe, a former IRA hunger striker who shared a cell block in the Maze prison with Hughes, believes that the latter was “haunted” by McConville’s death.
“He totally regretted the killing. His view was that if she was not going to be shot dead and left on the street like other informers, then don’t shoot her at all,” O’Rawe said. “I spoke to him after he got out of jail and he was still adamant she was helping the British. I don’t know, but even if she was, I think he would have preferred to let her go.”
O’Rawe said he knew nothing of the IRA policy of disappearing people. “I never heard Jean McConville’s name until the mid-1980s. The ordinary IRA volunteer wasn’t told about this activity; it was obviously done on a need-to-know basis, but it was awful. Kidnapping someone and secretly burying them in a bog is horrendous.”
O’Rawe believes McConville was “disappeared” because the IRA could not bring itself to admit publicly to killing her.
“It would have been a major embarrassment for the IRA leadership. The obvious option would have been to expel her. In my view, that would have been the right thing to do if they were convinced she was an informer. But again, what could she have known about the IRA?
“Her intelligence value to the security forces would have been minimal. She wasn’t even a member of the IRA. The most she could have done was report someone for carrying a rifle. Everyone saw people with guns in those days. It was no big deal.”
THE McConville family do not know whether or not Adams was involved in the death of their mother. They simply say they would like all of those responsible to face justice.
Michael McConville said he has no doubt as to why his mother was abducted and murdered. “I met Gerry Adams after my mother’s body was found and he apologised for what happened, but I think he lives in denial. He doesn’t even admit to being in the IRA,” he said.
“I know why my mother was killed. She wasn’t trusted in the community because she had helped a British soldier whom she found injured outside our flat one night. So they killed her, but then couldn’t admit to what they had done, because it was a new low for the IRA. Labelling my mother an informer was something the IRA had to do to justify what happened. People like my mother didn’t mean anything to the IRA.
“My mother’s murder hasn’t gone away because it was one of the worst crimes imaginable. I’m not saying it was the worst crime ever committed in the Troubles by the IRA, but it was certainly one of them.”